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Sunday, August 9, 2015

Five Survival Tips for New Teachers to MPS and other important thoughts

Welcome to Minneapolis Public Schools! First year teaching isn’t easy, but stick with it. We are proud to have you. Teachers teach, but we also help each other. Here is my take what might help you. This is what I wish I had known. Of course I think all of it matters, but the topics are in bold to for you to jump around. Disclaimer: I write to express my truth, feel free to agree or disagree.

Socialize! Reach out to colleagues with experience. Not in a building with a lot of experienced staff? Contact me and I’ll connect you. You are not required to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Fill your teacher’s toolbox with tips, tricks, and techniques. You will not be your best teaching self in the first year; experience counts in this profession. Modify lessons you find to fit your students. It goes better if you don’t follow a scripted curriculum. On the flip side, make friends with probationary and experienced teachers. Get together for coffee or drinks. This can be a very lonely profession. You get cooped up in your classroom and could be there all day and not speak with an adult. Make time everyday to have adult time. Find lunch groups, don’t wait to be invited. Just ask can I join you? Don’t know where the lunch groups are? Talk to your school secretary. They seem to know everything, because they do.  

Be a team player, but use your common sense. This has to do with your relationship with the district. You will feel pressure to use Focused Instruction, known as FI, (everyone) or the Reading Horizons Little Books (elementary teachers). The latter is riddled with stereotypes. I’ll hold back my true feelings about FI for another blog post. In short, it is a curriculum model, not the model of curriculum. Use it as a resource for lesson ideas and assessments. Remember you are professionals; relying on your training in curriculum design and strategies can not be substituted. That being said, good teachers beg, borrow, and steal ideas that work for the students in their rooms. Beware of one-size fits all approaches. I have taught seven years and the district has changed curriculum models three times. Just because the district is shilling it, doesn’t mean it is right for your students. Teaching is an art, FI is not.

Know your union. Seriously. Sign up to be a full dues paying member of Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59 and donate two dollars per pay check to the Committee On Political Education (COPE) and Committee of Thirteen. If you did not sign up at New Teacher Orientation, go to or drive to 67 8th Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55413 and speak with Sherri. COPE works to advance the profession in the political sphere. While Committee of Thirteen works to protect your pension. Trust me, there are a lot of examples of when politicians want to defund our schools, pit teachers against each other, or reduce how much you will have in that retirement account. Your school should have what is known as a building steward. They are elected each fall by you and your colleagues. Stewards attend a monthly meeting held on the last Wednesday of each month to get updates, share concerns, distribute news to their sites, organize teachers at their site, and support teachers going through rough times in their building. An example of this could be if/when you are accused of doing something you didn’t, your steward will be there. When working with adolescents and youth this can happen. Stewards will also know if you are full dues paying member! STEWARDS ARE GREAT! Ask them for news about what they learned at the last union meeting. Attending union meetings at your site. Always remember, the protections we earned in the past are meant to protect you now. Protections like due process do not hold your students back! The union is good.

Classroom management…sign up for ENVoY. It is a part of your Achievement of Tenure process. I think it is required in your second year of teaching these days? It is non-verbal behavioral management that is applicable the very next day in your room. ENVoY is freaky good if you use it consistently. I’m telling you the above-pause-whisper changed my life. The A of T process is not set in stone. Sign up for early when it is offered your first year of teaching. Don’t be fooled by the logic that a good lesson plan is the method for engaged students. It is part of it, but not all of it.

Reflection is easier said than done, but do it! I made mistakes my first year teaching that I would never, I mean ever, do again. I once made sophomores write out for the last ten minutes of class, “I am not a third grader. I can control myself,” because I snapped. This was right before parent conferences as well… I was ashamed of myself. But I reflected, spoke with colleagues, and moved forward. I’m now better equipped to handle thirty nine students in the last hour of the day with ten boys that feed off each others behaviors. That also means you need to specifically set aside time to reflect. Do what works for you; writing, talking, drawing, or sitting quietly thinking what could you have done differently at the end of the day are some ideas. You will not move your teaching forward without thinking about, drum roll please…your teaching! Better yet, reflect with colleagues from your building over coffee! 

Here is the part of this blog post where being a human and teacher converge...mostly.

Race is important. Students are developing racial identity by interacting with people, both white and people of color, teacher or not. As teachers our students racial identity development can’t be ignored. I highly recommend the book “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum to learn the nuances of this particularly important, yet all too often ignored topic. Don’t be the educator who mistakes an African American student slapping their scalp as a behavioral tick that requires a special ed evaluation. When in fact it is the only way to itch your head if you have tightly braided hair. Not my story, but a true one still. Even more seriously, we are filters of all information and ultimately decide what students learn about their place in society. Ninety percent of teachers  in the U.S. are white. I’m not going out a limb here by saying it is easy when you are white, like me, to not think about race. We live in a white privileged culture. White people see white people everywhere. We must ask ourselves are my students seeing people who look like them in the curriculum? It is too easy to present a white dominated curriculum in a district with 67% students of color. While we all know, I hope, Columbus didn’t discover North America and indigenous people were there first, repeating that factual error enforces a white dominated narrative and at the same time excludes the culture of indigenous people as something to be discovered, not honored. If you discover people, they are not people in this narrative. It also harms white students by not developing their own racial identity in relation to their non-white peers. Be brave and accept that race matters. The belief that you are colorblind to race with “I don’t see color. I see people.” That actually dismisses their unique experiences that white people don’t have to put up with as an African American as an example. I also suggest The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander to study this further.

The three Rs are relationships, relationships, and you won’t be surprised when I say relationships. Don’t fool yourself, you will not be a friend to students; you will be a caring adult. Know something special about each student, but I suggest you target the students who are least prepared to learn first. They can confide their troubles to you, and you will support them. This will not happen if you are not intentional. Asking students their favorite band on a worksheet isn’t relationship building. It comes from genuine human to human interaction. Relationships between students matters as well. Group projects and partner work are not community building techniques. Time spent on knowing your students and students knowing each other is time well spent. 

Authority does not come from your position as the teacher. Your power to control a classroom comes from setting up norms and values and most importantly picking your battles. Every behavior that offends your sensibilities is not a direct insult. In my first year of teaching, I measured how much students respected me by how few or many drawings were on the desks. Upon further investigation, I actually had students who liked art. Once I incorporated more drawing as formative assessments and assignments using political cartoons and so on there were fewer drawings on the desks. I remember a student telling me his dad was arrested and didn’t know when he would be home. He and his little brother didn’t have their mom around. Only drunk or high neighbors were walking in and out of their apartment. He would not have confided this to me without a relationship. As a mandated reporter, all teachers are, I reported it to the social worker and this student was angry at me. However, when we are the caring adults we must do our job. He forgave me in a few weeks and things were never better. He knew I cared about him. 

Age is a factor. If you are fresh out of college or gifted with enduring youthful features this might eat away at you. Colleagues, parents, and students might take unnecessary issue with your birthdate. Many times they won’t realize how offended you might feel. While long call subbing at South High School I revealed my age to a student because he asked. Why not tell him? He had a sibling older than me. Therefore, he didn’t need to listen to me anymore. That broke my heart. It was six years later before I revealed how old I was to students again. Every year at the parent picnic, a parent assumes I am a senior in high school and I wear my ID badge folks. How should you handle it? Sometimes I play it up with a playful AARP joke. Get it? Senior and AARP? I used to say I haven’t taught four years yet so I can’t be a senior teacher. Make your response sound like you took it as a compliment and let them know. At parent conferences, I get the "you look so young" comment at least once, although way more when I first started. A mother kept bringing up my age, not in a demeaning way, but I needed to move the conference along. So I told her something along the lines of,“Working with students keeps you young, but after four and half years of training I’m better prepared to teach better than a your average twenty-two year old.” 

Yup. I’m going to do it. Don’t bring up your age with colleagues, if you can help it. Someone sent a staff wide email asking who had served longest in the building after a well respected colleague retired. Someone wrote a date. I replied all that I was born in 1985. Well that didn’t go over well. I think it made colleagues who have served our school a long time feel…extremely experienced (note I did not say old). Never say old…oops.

Setting up your classroom tips and techniques. Here is where I’m lost for the elementary teachers, sorry. I’m not going to pretend to know how to set up an elementary classroom. For middle and high school teachers out there keep reading. First, set up your document camera as close to the front and middle of the room as possible. This is a nice gadget to put assignments under the camera and it gets projected. I have used it to handwrite instructions in my class notebook (that students can reference later if absent) all the way to showing off exemplary student work. Your teaching zone in the front of the room is the key to this though. Always give instruction from the same space. You could even put an X on the ground using tape. Students will know you are ready to begin class or it is time to listen up when you stand there. If you are standing far away from your Smart Board (projection screen) while using the document camera it splits their attention, not a good thing. Second, set up the desks that makes the most sense for your teaching style. Don’t put them in rows if you are going to do a lot of small group work. It makes getting the room in order before the bell rings a nightmare. There is always an exception and solutions! Begin the year in rows, establish community, culture of learning, and then change it up. I rarely keep the same seating arrangement for too long. It is good to spice things up when necessary. Third and lastly, routine and placement of classroom resources needs to be predictable. Don’t move the weekly calendar, turn in basket, pencil sharpener, art supplies, bathroom pass, and no name assignments around the room. I suggest the weekly calendar at the front of the room near your teaching space to easily reference it. Pencil sharper and turn in basket in the back of the room. If they are in the front, you will be giving instructions and a student will get up in the middle of it and sharpen their pencil or turn in a late assignment distracting students and you. Fourth, display student work. When you choose a particular assignment to display, put them all up. Even show the ones that aren’t so great. Put it on a side wall, not the back. This way you can reference particular students’ work for what they did right and show you care in a small, but when used wisely, powerful, unexpected way. Even if a student who has trouble pay attention to details puts a compass on their map, it is still worth mentioning to the class. 

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